Every Man Dies Alone, Hans Fallada

I’ll start at the end: What I loved first about this book was the good stuff at the end – historical documents like letters and trial papers, little grits of non fiction that formed the backdrop of this story, and the inspiring notion that Hans Fallada was a pseudonym for a man called Rudolph Ditzen who wrote this book in 24 days in the last year of his life in Germany 1947.

Ditzen’s personal story is a novel in itself, he came to the attention of the Nazis in 1933 and was ultimately jailed for his ‘anti-Nazi denunciations’. Ditzen suffered a series of nervous breakdowns, became addicted to alcohol and morphine and spent time not only in jail but also in a mental institution.

It is against this personal context that Fallada wrote ‘Every Man Dies Alone’, a novel based on the true story of a German couple who conducted a 3 year subtle resistance campaign against the Nazis by dropping postcards renouncing the Nazis and their activities around the city of Berlin.

The novel unfolds slowly, each chapter providing a segment of the complex story of Berlin under the Nazis and the lives of those people trying to live within the confines of this warped reality. Fallada presents us with an uninvolved couple who lose a son at the Front, a Jewish woman whose husband has disappeared, a retired judge and a family of fervent Nazi supporters whose sons are involved in the Hitler Youth. Into the mix he throws a few desperate and destitute characters with a penchant for women, gambling and alcohol who are always looking for a quick way to make a buck without getting killed. The mix of these diverse individuals is profound, disturbing and incredibly interesting. Reading this novel is like looking through the peep hole into each of their lives, catching snippets and then losing them again as the narrative is passed between them.

I love the rhythm of this telling, the subtle flow and the ultimate insight into the inanities of life in Nazi Germany during this period, a time when everyone was a spy and everything that you said could be twisted and used against you.

Primo Levi says that this is “the greatest book every written about German resistance to the Nazis” which is true, but somewhat ironic given that the English publication of this book only appeared in 2009, some 60 years after it was first published in German.

Oversights like this aside, there is no doubt that Fallada’s book is one of the most important books that has been published since the Second World War and there is no coincidence to my review appearing today, on the 70th anniversary of the end of that dreadful, tragic and devastating period in human history.

Fallada’s message is clear: Have the courage to care and to act. Do not stand by idle while others perpetrate evil. Do not stray from knowing what is right, and doing what is right.

I can’t help but be reminded of the poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The Story of Beautiful Girl, Rachel Simon

downloadThe Story of Beautiful Girl is indeed a beautiful story. It is written beautifully, crafted beautifully and its message is simply beautiful. I struggled so to let this book go. I read it slowly so that I could linger over its magic and then as I approached the end I stopped, held it at bay so that I could savour it further. I rarely have the patience to do this and I watched this book from a distance for a long time before deciding that it was finally time to let go. I think I read 2 or 3 other books in between, drawing out the process even further.

I don’t want to spoil a moment of this book for anyone, so I’m simply going to say that this is a book about love and loss, about faith and empathy and about the power of one person to change the world. It is about truth and honesty and perserverance. It is about the very essence of what draws us together as a community, leading us all to find a place and a space to belong.

I defy you not to fall in love with this beautiful book about a Beautiful Girl.

Buried Angels, Camilla Lackberg

downloadI’m undecided about this book. I read it and I was certainly engaged by the plot and the characters and their tortured past. It was hard not to be captivated by these elements. I was especially intrigued by the author’s Swedish context and I think it was this more than anything which kept me intrigued.

But I was unsettled by some of what seemed to be the obvious twists – two women who both lost children, a family who disappeared, some unpleasant men. I couldn’t help but feel that it was all too conspicuously apparent. And mostly I couldn’t bring myself to care enough about the fate of these characters. Sometimes it happens – a book just unfolds and I land up feeling detached, possibly through no fault of the author, just something in the air. And so it was with Buried Angels. I read it. Right to the end. I didn’t guess the twist and I was engaged enough to persist. But that was all.

Two Brothers, Ben Elton

two broIt’s been too long since I last read an epic tale like this one. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read such a captivating drama since Gregory’s Wideacre trilogy had me  captive.

Elton’s book gripped me from the first page and had me hanging by a thread until the very end. There was only one moment where he lost me, but I’ll forgive him that because the book itself was just too otherwise perfect.

Elton weaves two narratives. The first in the past, Berlin 1920 to be precise. The story of a Jewish woman who gives birth to twins. The story of this woman and her family forms the basis of the narrative and unfolds parallel to the birth of Hitler’s Nazi party. Elton has managed to convey the flurry of insanity which engulfed Germany in this post war period. The uncertainty, the beauty, the mania. He does it while simultaneaously moulding Frieda Stengel and her beloved husband, Wolfgang, into characters that we as readers have no choice but to love.

Elton’s second narrative occurs in 1956. And about this I will say nothing for it will simply spoil the magic of the two tales.

For me, part of the aura of this book was the historical context but never did that over power the magic of Elton’s characters. The generous Frieda, her two sons, her trumpet playing husband and of course the beautiful Dagmar and loving Silke.

This book will surely resonate with me for a long time and if you are a fan of historical fiction I can’t recommend it enough. You will not be disappointed.

In The Blood, Lisa Unger

in-the-blood-9781476708232_lgOh gosh this woman unhinges me. Psychological thriller doesn’t even come close to describing this page turning, heart throbbing, gripping and twisting read. Clearly I love Lisa Unger. I love that her crazy plots follow me through my dreams. I love the way she creates this viscious characters filled with verve and pizazz and I love the way she knits it all together. I’m an Unger fan through and though!

Sonya Hartnett, The Ghost’s Child

downloadThe Midnight Zoo was such a treat that when I stumbled upon another of Sonya Hartnett’s books while searching through the library for books for the littler people in my house, I couldn’t possibly resist the site of The Ghost’s Child – and needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed!

The Ghost’s Child starts with some basic scene setting – Matilda, an elderly woman, comes home to find a stranger sitting in her living room. The stranger is a young boy and Matilda – Maddie – finds it comforting to have him sitting there while she offers to make tea and put out biscuits. The story unfolds as Maddie tells the boy about her a story. The story of her life, a life filled with beauty and wonder, love and deep loss.

Maddie’s story is magical and wonderous and exposes readers to such an amazing array of emotions that it is difficult to capture in a short review.

I won’t spoil this gem. I will only tell you that what sold me on this book was the way that it could be read on so many different levels. There is something here for everyone.

The Submission, Amy Waldman

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I found this in my draft folder – who knew there was a draft folder? And I can’t for the life of me recall why I left it there … unfinished. So here it is, much overdue: The Submission. Amy Waldman. What can I say? Where can I begin?  What can I say? This is just one of those books that consumes you. I can’t think of a single adjective to describe it. It is too much, too big to be contained by words alone.

I love the website for this novel. It so captures the book: a slab of images, The Architect, The Widow, The Chairman, The Journalist, each image spread across a chess board interspersed with titles – I think it appeals because the Sydney Opera House is there buried in these images and on the surface this book has nothing to do with Sydney’s icon!

I’ve read a few post 9/11 works of fiction. Delillo’s Falling Man has possibly the greatest opening chapter I have ever encountered, but book fizzled from there for me. Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a poignant exploration of the impact of 9/11 on the innocent families, told through the lens of an autistic child. It brilliantly captures the immediate tone of New York City in the aftermath of this unimaginable disaster and the depth of this tragedy is tenderly contrasted by the quirky narrative voice which somehow makes telling this tale more bearable.

What I have not read, is a book which clearly elucidates the deep rift which 9/11 created, specifically impacting the lives of those non-fanatical Muslims who are caught up in the fray of the chaos which followed with the finger-pointing and angst that one can only expect to come in the wake of this enormous tragedy. Waldman’s book does exactly this.

There is so much greatness in this book that it is difficult to quantify. What I think made it so engaging was the dialogue. Nowhere is this more evident than in the book’s opening:

“The names,” Claire said. “What about the names?”

“They’re a record, not a gesture,” the sculptor replied.

It is so simple. The names … what about the names? They are discussing a competition for a memorial, trying to come to grips with what could actually appropriately commemorate an event like 9/11, provide a suitable resting place for those whose bodies were never find while also act as a salve for a city which has been changed forever. They are trying to set parameters. Do we require the names? The person asking is Claire. For her, it matters – “They will for me” she says tightly.

5000 entries have been reviewed and the committee is down to the final two, trying to make a decision. Ultimately it is a decision which is fraught with complexity for a whole host of reasons, none of which I could adequately cover in this space.

In short, this book is brilliant. Truly and honestly, one of those books that brings tears to your eyes while at the same time forces you to reconsider all of your assumptions, to reassess your values and the very way that you move in the world. Reviewing it now, more than a year after I read it, I think it requires rereading. It’s just that kind of book.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo

51sM5xQaE4LOk, new favourite author #love. What a beautiful book. Epic and breath-taking and stellar and poignant. Filled with simple imagery and impossible emotions. A truly special read.

Meet Edward Tulane. He is a rabbit made almost entirely of china who thinks “to be an exceptional specimen.” He belongs to a little girl called Abilene who loves him dearly. And although Edward quite enjoys Abilene’s attentions, he finds he somewhat boring and not nearly as exceptional as himself.

The tale unfolds as Edward is lost at sea – both literally and figuratively – and forced to become accustomed to various recreations at the hands of new owners who all teach him the value of love and belonging. Through this journey that lasts years, Edward comes to find his heart – “For the first time, his heart called out to him” – and with it, a deep pain that leaves him shattered.

I have highlighted great chunks of this story – “Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.” And these feelings leave Edward feeling bereft:

“How many times, Edward wondered, would he have to leave without getting the chance to say goodbye? A lone cricket started up a song. Edward listened. Something deep inside him ached. He wished that he could cry.”

Edward’s notion of love and loving evolves in this short story. It gains dimensions as he travels until it leaves him feeling depleted – “I am done with hope, thought Edward Tulane.” Only to realise that “If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless.”

This is a book that you will swallow whole. Read to your children, your grandchildren and then carry it with you in your heart. DiCamillo is a master storyteller. We should all be so lucky to find an Edward Tulane.

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

download (1)Kill me now. This book blew my mind. Quite literally one of the very best thrillers I think I have ever read.

Publishers Weekly calls this book a “pyschologically astute debut” and I can’t think of a better description. I had the same reaction to S.J. Watson’s book Before I Go To Sleep.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this review – how much do I reveal about the plot, about the narrative structure? I really don’t want to ruin anyone’s reading experience because this is that book that you really have to read and for so many reasons …

Hawkins has crafted something quite magnificent in this book. Her characters are so complex and layered and wonderfully intricate that I couldn’t stop reading. I literally couldn’t put this book down. I went to work and sat there thinking about what was going to happen next. This book hovered in my mind constantly and still, after having finished it quite some time ago, I am plagued by fragments of it.

What I found most intriguing about this book was the way Rachel, the protagonist, whose life has come apart due in part to her alcoholism and in part to a range of other events, has constructed an imaginary world for herself and indeed for some of the people around her. Every day she boards a train. It is the same train she would board if she were going to work. But she isn’t going to work because she was fired for her drunken behaviour. Instead, she is pretending that her life is fine. That everything is rosy, She is pretending even though to everyone – including the reader – it is plain that things are not fine. Not even close.

In telling Rachel’s story, Hawkins has constructed a clever narrative which splits between the voices of three women: Rachel, Anna and Megan. These women are intertwined in so many ways, both real and imagined and the novel details the unravelling of these connections.

I found myself particularly drawn to the segments of the narrative where Rachel was on the train. Her musings, her stream of consciousness and the way that she is so detached from herself and from reality itself, were captivating and provided the story with a perfect rhythm to balance the action which unfolds.

So far, this is my book of 2015. It’s a must read. At least once. For everyone.

The Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Hella Winston

51n2j79drXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I love a book with a good subheading and this one certainly didn’t disappoint – “The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels”. It’s a tantalising prospect … that there are rebels in this sect who retain their Hasidic identity but in the privacy of their homes or behind closed doors, they engage in activities which would certainly have them excommunicated.

I quite like the way this book was structured; a series of interviews cobbled together with the invested narrator guiding the drama, involved in its outcome, hovering always on the edge. We came to understand these ‘rebels’ and to watch them voyeuristically from a distance, feel their distress but never quite ‘know’ them … if that makes sense. I think this is a consequence of Winston’s style – the book started off as a doctoral thesis and then evolved into this act of expressive witnessing.

What Winston does extremely well in this book is provide us with these varied insights into the challenges of living in a strictly limited and perhaps limiting society where one so desperately wants to belong but can’t fit into the mould. Winston’s characters are all tortured and tormented by this struggle and there is a constant sadness that underlies their journeys. I quite like the empathy that Winston shows for these individuals that she meets, despite the fact that she comes from such a different background to them and that she really can’t appreciate most of the obstacles that they are facing. I think that this lends the book an element of honesty which seals it as a valuable book to read for anyone interested in Jewish identity, Jewish culture or Jewish society.

It’s certainly not the best book that I have read on this topic, although perhaps I am grossly influenced by having just read Joseph Berger’s stellar tome called The Pious Ones. But I am glad that I read it and it has contributed enormously to my perception of Hasidic Jews and the way that they live.